Question – when does a winner of a race receive less attention than the athletes they beat?
Answer – when the winner is African and there are Western athletes in the field who set a PB or finish in the top three.
A perfect example of this was on Friday at the Bislett Games Diamond League meeting in Oslo. In the men’s 5000m, two Americans – Bernard Lagat and Chris Solinsky – dipped under 13 minutes, with Lagat’s time breaking the American record. An outstanding feat, and another example of USA’s improved form in the endurance events.
But with all the post-race talk revolving around this pair, you’d be forgiven for thinking that one of them had actually won the race. In reality, Lagat was third and Solinsky was sixth. As I write this, just three days have passed since Oslo and I bet many fans have already forgotten who won the 5000m.
So let’s just reflect for a moment on the winner, Imane Merga from Ethiopia. The 21-year-old is a real talent too. While it has taken Lagat 35 years to run 12:54, Merga is running faster (12:53.81 to be precise) at a much younger age. He also finished fourth over 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships last year.
Merga is now the sixth fastest Ethiopian of all time over 5000m and all of his compatriots who rank ahead of him have won a bag load of medals at World Championships, Olympics, World Indoor Championships and World Cross Country Championships. In short, should Merga stick around and continue progressing, we will most likely be seeing him on the podium at a major global championships very soon.
Another example of race winners being ignored came in 2006. I remember flicking through the coverage of the Commonwealth Games in Running Fitness magazine. In their report of the 5000m, the focus was almost exclusively on Australian runner Craig Mottram – the headline, pictures, captions and 95% of the story was all Mottram-related. At a quick glance, it would have looked as though Mottram was the winner.
In truth, he won the silver medal behind Augustine Choge, who clocked the fastest ever championship 5000m of 12:56.41 to win the gold medal, and did so while still a junior athlete too. He probably got one or two mentions in the whole report in that magazine.
A very similar thing happened one year prior to that at the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki. Everyone remembers Mottram winning the bronze medal in the 5000m (indeed, I don’t recall any athlete ever getting so much press from a bronze medal), but does anyone recall who won the gold and silver medals ahead of him? To wit, Benjamin Limo of Kenya was the victor with Sileshi Sihine of Ethiopia taking the silver medal.
I think it’s fantastic that Western distance runners are finally conquering their fear of competing with the Africans, and the four American athletes who have broken 13 minutes for 5000m in the past 12 months are fully deserving of all the praise they get for their outstanding achievements.
But at the same time, it would be great to see just as much adulation heaped on the Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes too. They are just as talented (if not more so), work just as hard (if not harder), and they actually win races and take gold medals!